My friend Olivia was texting me about Borderlands 3 over the weekend. I asked if she was having a good time, and she replied that she was, but that performance issues were getting her down. "[M]enu lag gets me so frustrated sometimes. 10-15 seconds to pull up my talent tree is absolutely ridiculous."
Olivia, as it turns out, is one of many people playing Borderlands 3 on a base model console, in her case an Xbox One S. Borderlands 3's optimization is pretty shaky no matter which console you're on, but as usual, owners of the base models are bearing the brunt of long load times and other issues. And Borderlands 3 isn't the only game with these problems.
Control was another game with "severe frame rate issues" on base PS4 and Xbox One consoles. While it started out well enough, it began dropping hard on combat sequences, even going as low as 10fps (according to Cty, it admittedly wasn't great on PS4 Pro either). A recent patch improved matters, but our sister site Digital Foundry says "there's still work to do."
It seems we're starting to settle into a familiar pattern as the generation comes to a close. Developers are pushing graphical boundaries as far as possible, and older consoles are getting saddled with load times and optimization issues. If you can't afford anything more than the base model, you pretty much have to suck it up and deal.
On the face of it, this is a relatively new phenomenon for console owners. Last generation saw the introduction of SKUs like the Xbox 360 Elite, but outside of improved cooling and a built-in HDMI port, it didn't offer huge improvements over the base model. Oddly, it was the New 3DS that most notoriously split its userbase. Anyone who's tried to play Pokemon Sun and Moon on the old 3DS can attest to the frame rate issues it suffered. Lately, "pro" models have seemingly exacerbated this problem for PS4 and Xbox One owners, who must accept not just lower resolution, but lower performance as well.
This all has left me wondering: why aren't developers more to optimize for the base models? Wouldn't it make sense to start with the lower models and add the graphical bells and whistles for the superior versions? I figured I would ask Digital Foundry's John Linneman, since he spends a lot of his time thinking about this sort of thing for his videos.
John notes that it's somewhat common to see performance issues at the tail end of a generation as developers try to squeeze every last ounce of power out of the hardware at their disposal. He points to Far Cry 3 as an example, calling it "nearly unplayable" (similarly, Skyrim was no great shakes on PS3). Pro models have offset these limitations, he says, but there are likely still issues optimizing for the base models.
The Xbox One is particularly finicky, he says. "I know, after speaking to several developers, the original Xbox One simply requires more manpower and time to achieve good performance. It requires more work than any other platform and, even then, the results won't be great."
As for the PS4, he says, "I think still sits as a sweet spot and most developers put a lot of effort into achieving stable performance on that box—it's just, their ambitions occasionally go too far."
From the sound of it, the current gap mostly comes down to a desire to put forward the best possible experience, but also to the usual lack of time. There are also some problems that are tough to fix. Interestingly, Borderlands 3's gameplay is passable on the base consoles, but when it comes to load times, it suffers.
The best compromise might be to offer a fuller suite of graphical options, but even that might not be the greatest idea. As John points out, "it's best to aim for a specific level of performance." Still, some games have more options than most. Star Ocean 4 is one example of a PS4 game with a full suite of PC graphics settings.
However they're addressed, these issues are unlikely to go away in the next generation. Cloud gaming will be taking hold soon enough, where console-side performance issues will basically be moot, but plenty of fans will still be playing on traditional boxes. There are already whispers of a "Switch Pro" that could push the boundaries of what's possible on the platform while making it more difficult to optimize for the launch model, which already suffers from major discrepancies in the docked and handheld experience.
One way or another, gaming enthusiasts with shallow pockets are going to have to deal with being deprioritized as the console generation wears on. As PC players discovered long ago, progress waits for no one.
Major Game Releases: September 16 to September 20
Here are the major releases for the week of September 16 to September 20. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.
- Sega Genesis Mini [September 19]: Sega will finally make a proper entrance into the mini console fray with the Sega Genesis Mini this week. We've already reviewed it, praising its excellent emulation and solid library (with the notable omission of Sonic 3, of course). I'll go ahead and admit that I'm going to miss out on this one, mostly because I already have the Sega Classics Collections on Switch, and because I'm a little retro console'd out. But when the PC Engine Mini arrives? I'm all in.
- Apple Arcade [September 20, iOS]: Apple's new iPhone is out this week, and its new gaming subscription service is coming with it. For $4.99 per month, the new service will offer access to "100 new and exclusive games" such as Devolver's Exit the Gungeon and Annapurna's Sayonara Wild Hearts. Mobile gaming has generally been a wasteland over the past several years, so any new approach is welcome. But will gaming enthusiasts spring for yet another subscription model filled in large part with prestige indies? I guess we'll see.
- Nintendo Switch Lite [September 20]: The lighter, more colorful Switch is out this week. Nintendo being Nintendo, we're not getting an advance unit, so I'm afraid we won't have a review for you right away. But everyone seems pretty excited about a console with… uh… way fewer features. But did you know that it's available in yellow now?
- Sayonara Wild Hearts [September 19, Nintendo Switch, Apple Arcade]: Okay, I don't know much about Sayonara Wild Hearts, but I do know that it has the backing of Annapurna Interactive, and that it "scratches the ever-present Rhythm Heaven itch." Sounds good to me.
- The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening [September 20, Nintendo Switch]: One of the best Zeldas ever made (seriously!) finally returns to Switch this week. I have some serious love for Link's Awakening, not just because of its mind-bending, slightly drug-addled story, but because of its lovely soundtrack. A lot of what fans loved in Ocarina of Time—the owl, the ocarina—originated in Link's Awakening, so it's worth paying homage and playing this classic, frame rate issues and all.
- Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch [September 20, Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4]: With all of the big releases happening this week, it might be easy to miss out on Ni no Kuni, which is coming to Switch and PS4 on Friday. Maybe don't? Caty in particular is a big champion of Level-5's whimsical (and rather dark) RPG, which was produced in association with Studio Ghibli. I don't recall loving it in 2013, but perhaps it has aged well in the years since.
This Week's News and Notes
- It's officially fall! Well, almost. It's raining here in the San Francisco Bay Area, which means that the weather at least is starting to turn. The big releases, meanwhile, are really starting to pick up steam, with Gears 5 and Borderlands 3 now out, and Link's Awakening just around the corner. This is the part of the year where we can finally stop speculating on what's coming out and just enjoy some quality games.
- Super NES games have been available on the Switch for about a week now, and my most played game has been… wait for it… Super Puyo Puyo 2. Because you know, I don't already have a hundred different variations of Puyo Puyo already between Puyo Puyo Tetris, the Sega Genesis Classics Collection, and now this. But it's Puyo Puyo! I'm terrible at it, but it's just the greatest thing when you want to relax… and getting utterly destroyed by a sheep.
- I suppose this is the part where I ask what your most anticipated game of the fall might be. Or perhaps it's already out? I don't have an easy answer for this one. I would say… maybe the Outer Worlds… but something tells me that my most played game this fall is going to be something like FIFA 20.
- According to Hideo Kojima, Mad Max director George Miller once said the following about Death Stranding: "In all aspects, you are correct. Mathematically, psychologically, physically, philosophically." I'm on the review for Death Stranding (oh boy), and I'm really excited to see how it's mathematically correct. The Stranding Genre is nearly here, folks.
- Gears 5 can apparently boast "the biggest launch week" of any first-party title for the Xbox One, "easily doubling" the performance of the Gears 4. Not too shabby. Of course, things have changed a little since 2016.
- During PAX West, Eric Van Allen chatted with Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 writer Cara Ellison for a panel. For those interested in what she has to say, we pulled some relevant quotes, including her thoughts on the Bloodlines canon, romances, and the challenge of going from a critic to writing for games.
- USG contributor David Craddock is releasing a new book, and in a new excerpt, he has the story of why porting the 16-bit NBA Jam to Playstation was such a trial back in 1995. As it turns out, the poor developers didn't even have access to English documentation. Yikes.
- Over the weekend my beloved Minnesota Vikings clashed with their border rivals, the Green Bay Packers, and because they employee Kirk Cousins at quarterback, they unfortunately lost. Credit to Eric, who is a Packers fan, for only lightly teasing me with some cheese emojis after the game. Thankfully I didn't follow through with suggesting a wager, because no one in their right mind should be betting on Cousins on the road.
- Axe of the Blood God: Kotaku editor and Retronauts veteran Chris Kohler join Kat and Nadia to discuss what may be the greatest RPG console of them: The Super Nintendo! They recall their history with Nintendo's 16-bit marvel, talk about why it was initially controversial, and explain why it holds up so well today. Plus, Link's Awakening impressions, a Sega Genesis Mini Review, and some TGS discussion! Subscription info here!